Nigerians have an understandable—if somewhat childish and sometimes nasty—habit of singling out a trait in one of their rulers and examining critical arguments from the perspective of that trait every time. Take the Jonathan administration, for example: when critics raised an issue, Jonathan apologists would direct the argument to “But he is a nice (or good, meek, humble) person” or worse: “You are saying this because he is from an ethnic minority”. Or in Lagos, when Fashola’s spending was criticised: “But he is working, compared to others.”
This social behaviour is generally amusing, but it becomes dangerous when it starts to repress the space for critical thought.
Hey, Buhari is disregarding the rule of law. “But he is fighting corruption.”
Look, Buhari is not managing the economy. “But he is fighting corruption.”
Buhari is ignoring religious/ethnic minorities with grievances. “But he is fighting corruption.”
This particular defence mechanism is even more understandable because—who in Nigeria doesn’t want to fight corruption? Corruption is the sum total of Nigeria’s political experience, and we must all put our foot down and, fight it! Why, even some blatantly corrupt politicians now claim to fight corruption!
“Sai Baba. Buhari is fighting corruption.”
But we ought to examine this claim more critically. Is Buhari actually fighting corruption? Or, is the anti-corruption mantra—and the “Dasukigate” affair in particular—a sideshow to distract Nigerians from the, so far, unimaginative policies of this administration? Or, maybe, the president is genuine in intent but just clueless in execution?
A lot of us, Nigerians, use the word “corruption” by rote. We rarely think of what it means and so we have no conscious idea of its social dynamics. If we consider it at all, we mostly confine it, simply, to an illegal benefit from public funds. This definition, if the presidential media chat is anything to go by, is also the one favoured by the current administration.
But, is this all there is to “corruption”?
To be clear, corruption shows up in Nigeria in its two primal forms: as the corruption of need; and as the corruption of greed. There is a third, but we will come back to that.
Now, almost every type of society suffers from the corruption of greed (e.g., misusing public funds or public office or otherwise defrauding the public through private means). In this sense, even the Western countries are all corrupt countries. The difference in effect is, however, determined by the extent to which legal processes in a society can automatically and efficiently handle its occurrences.
The corruption of greed is derived from a condition of human nature that exploits weaknesses in any political or economic system. An increase in the corruption of greed isn’t the cause of negative social conditions—it is, in fact, a negative social condition itself. Thankfully, it is a social condition that can be cured through a sound legal system. To handle the corruption of greed as efficiently as possible (because we really can’t wipe out human criminality totally), a society can simply shore up weaknesses in the existing system: usually by capping regulatory loopholes, strengthening the capacity of the police, upgrading prosecuting authorities, promoting respect for the rule of law, and assuring the independence of the judiciary. It is under this process that Mr. Dasuki and his merry men should be handled. The Obasanjo and Yar’Adua administrations utilised these processes—to a limited extent. GEJ stalled its progress with characteristic indecisiveness and misguided pardons. Buhari, so far, seems to be following in Obasanjo’s steps. In any case, utilising the legal process to convict offenders is a normal, system-preserving, expectation that is hardly worth the socio-political energy and hysterical “support” that is currently attached to it in Nigeria.
On the other hand, the nature and causes of the corruption of need are much more complicated and requires the full participation of society. This is because the corruption of need is a symptom of a dysfunctional political or economic system. The corruption of need is peculiar to underdeveloped or developing countries. It is a corruption of survival that emerges from our daily trade-off between a patriotic desire to obey seemingly good laws, and a deeper, natural, instinct for self-preservation from the unjustifiable adverse effects of the system.
The corruption of need is the corruption of our daily lives: from negotiating a bribe with the (poorly paid) policeman to avoid lateness for work, to reconnecting your electricity line illegally (because “NEPA” wants to frustrate you). This is a corruption that exists because the price of honesty far outweighs—sometimes fatally—the consequences of corruption. This is the corruption that destroys us.
And it is this corruption of need that any serious Nigerian leader ought to tackle,first. But this is, almost, asking for the impossible; because the corruption of need stems directly from the nature and design of the political and economic system in which it flourishes.
And so: in an economic system where the government owns and controls all land, minerals, and other resources of production, the corruption of need necessarily emerges from the ensuing patronage system.
In a political system where, despite the heterogeneous nature of the society, all effective policymaking power is concentrated in the central government and local authorities have little or no efficient policymaking, the corruption of need necessarily emerges.
In an economic system where the relationship of a manufacturer to political power—and not his “brilliance” or innate productive capacity—determines profit-making, the corruption of need will necessarily emerge.
In a political system where the economy relies on the government’s budget and the government’s budget does not have to rely on the economy, then the corruption of need will necessarily emerge.
In an economic system where almost 70% of the revenue from economic resources goes into maintaining the government—and not the society—then the corruption of need will necessarily emerge.
Yet, somehow, in these underdeveloped or developing countries, the success of any government is assured if it can convince the population that the socio-economic gaps that allow the corruption of need to thrive stems, not from the systemic dysfunctions, but from the corruption of greed displayed by a “previous administration”.
Hence, in Nigeria (and a lot of other African countries) from 1966 to date, this singular argument has been a major justification of revolutionary power transitions. But history shows, again and again, that this argument is untrue. Instead, after every transition, the system merely resets the cycle.
And, no, we cannot cure the corruption of need just by strengthening the police or increasing the independence of the judiciary; not by arresting people or building more prisons. It requires, instead, the dissolution or reformation of the political and economic structures of the dysfunctional system. This takes imagination, innovation and persuasive charisma. It requires a working knowledge, by the politicians, of how to structure a productive economy.
But how can people who have not really worked for money, who get paid just for showing up, understand how to structure a productive economy?
But, does Buhari understand how to? Does Buhari understand that limiting productive activity (e.g., through erratic foreign exchange controls) is part of what breeds the corruption of need in black markets and borders? Does he understand that trying to run Nigeria—instead of trying to reform Nigeria—factors into the corruption of need? Does Buhari understand that the Federal Government of Nigeria is, in fact, the number one culprit?
“But Buhari is fighting corruption. We should all stand with him.”
I understand that Buhari has some economic gurus around him, but it is hard to believe that these people, almost of all whom have risen to their positions through the system, are capable of advising the president to set in motion the steps to dismantle the same system.
Well, as some try to argue, maybe Buhari is fighting the corruption of greed first, as a process of reform. But this position is hard to support considering that: (i) this approach has been taken before, and it solved nothing permanently—after all, even the Dasuki loot is derived from the “anti-corruption” crusades of the early 2000s; (ii) nine months in, and the Buhari government hasn’t processed the Dasuki case alone efficiently enough to secure any conviction—not that this will solve anything in itself; and (iii) even worse, the Buhari government questionably accommodates, at least, three people in the cabinet with dubious reputations from their time in state governments.
It seems more realistic to consider Buhari’s anti-corruption agenda as: the usual settling of private or public political scores with specific members of previous administrations—like almost every other Nigerian ruler before him; or—to put it very nicely—as evidence that the president has no clue what corruption in Nigeria really means.
In short, President Buhari is not quite fighting corruption. I believe that the president can perform much better if: (i) as Femi Falana has impliedly advised, he disengages from his overt personal interest, particularly in just one case of the corruption of greed, and “allow” the legal process to fully handle all instances of its occurrence without the presidency’s involvement or influence; while (ii) he concentrates on and engages fully, instead, with the political and economic reforms necessary to eradicate the more intricate corruption of need.
“Whatever. But he is fighting corruption. Let us stand with him. Nine million Nigerians will march for Buhari.”
And this insistence on mindless “support” is proof of the third way corruption manifests in Nigeria: the corruption of mind—or mental slavery.
Ayo Sogunro is a popular political commentator and author. Buy his books to read more of his thoughts on socio-legal philosophy. His most recent book “Everything in Nigeria is Going to Kill You” was listed by Pulse, Channels TV Book Club, and Guardian Newspaper as a top book of 2015. Follow him on Twitter @ayosogunro. This article was first published on his BLOG.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.